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March 15, 2008 - New York Times (NY)

In Alabama, A Crackdown On Pregnant Drug Users

By Adam Nossiter

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

ANDALUSIA, Ala. -- A day after she gave birth in 2006, Tiffany Hitson, 20, sat on her front porch crying, barefoot and handcuffed. A police officer hovered in the distance.

Ms. Hitson's newborn daughter had traces of cocaine and marijuana in its system, and the young woman, baby-faced herself, had fallen afoul of a tough new state law intended to protect children from drugs, and a local prosecutor bent on pursuing it. She made arrangements for the baby's care, and headed off to a year behind bars.

"I couldn't believe it," recalled Ms. Hitson, who was released in November after spending much of the first year of her daughter's life at the Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women in Alabama.

Two worlds are colliding in this piney woods backcountry in southern Alabama: casual drug use and a local district attorney unsettled that children or fetuses might be affected by it. The result is an unusual burst of prosecutions in which young women using drugs are shocked to find themselves in the cross hairs for harming their children, even before giving birth.

Over an 18-month period, at least eight women have been prosecuted for using drugs while pregnant in this rural jurisdiction of barely 37,000, a tally without any recent parallel that women's advocates have been able to find. The district attorney, Greg L. Gambril, acknowledges the number puts him at the "forefront," at least among Alabama prosecutors. Similar cases have come up elsewhere, usually with limited success. But Alabama, and in particular this hilly, remote terrain just above the Florida Panhandle, is pursuing these cases with special vigor.

In Maryland, the state's highest court in 2006 threw out the convictions of two women whose babies were born with cocaine in their bloodstreams, ruling that punishment was not the right deterrent. Last year, the New Mexico Supreme Court rejected a woman's child-abuse conviction in a similar case, declaring a fetus was not a child. Some doctors and advocacy groups maintain that the effects of drugs on pregnant women and their fetuses are not fully known; in Alabama, though, these arguments have yet to be officially made.

A cultural clash, unfolding within the confined world of Covington County, is at the origin of this prosecutorial crusade. Here, unlike in other jurisdictions, women are not appealing their convictions, and lawyers and doctors talk about these cases reluctantly, if at all. Too many people know one another in these quiet little towns that fade abruptly into the countryside.

There has not been a murder here in over three years, the prosecutor said. But a year ago a newborn died at the local hospital, and the mother had traces of methamphetamines in her system. Doctors told the police that the infant's premature birth could be attributed to maternal drug use, and she was charged with "chemical endangerment of child," which carries a sentence of 10 years to life in prison.

"In my jurisdiction, a baby being born dead because of drug abuse is a huge deal," Mr. Gambril said.

Mr. Gambril makes little distinction between fetus and child. He said his duty was to protect both -- though the Alabama law he uses makes no reference to unborn children, and was primarily intended to protect youngsters from exposure to methamphetamine laboratories.

"When drugs are introduced in the womb, the child-to-be is endangered," Mr. Gambril said. "It is what I call a continuing crime." He added that the purpose of the statute was to guarantee that the child has "a safe environment, a drug-free environment."

"No one is to say whether that environment is inside or outside the womb," he said, and no judge or other authority in Alabama has so far disagreed.

Covington County is an isolated rural terrain where drugs are a recreational outlet in the absence of others, where the police found nearly 200 methamphetamine laboratories in the first years of the decade, and where they made more arrests for abusing the drug than anywhere else in the state.

"This is a meth town," said Ms. Hitson's grandmother, Shirley Hinson, who helped take care of the baby while Tiffany was in prison. Speaking of youth here, Ms. Hinson said, "There's nothing for them to do."

The county is the kind of place where young women -- white, working-class, on probation for other offenses -- sometimes take a chance while pregnant.

"I made the biggest mistake of my life & did some drugs with her father right before I went into labor, unaware I was about to have her," Ms. Hitson wrote to the court from the Covington County Jail, in neat schoolgirl script, pleading to be released after her arrest in October 2006. "Please, please let me spend this most important time with my baby," she wrote.

But the judge had set bond at $200,000 -- Ms. Hitson had earlier been charged in connection with a break-in, and with credit-card fraud -- and in jail she stayed.

The environment can be unforgiving. Rachel Barfoot, 31, who had been charged before with beating her niece, told her probation officer that she was pregnant. When she tested positive for cocaine, she was arrested.

"I was in shock," said Ms. Barfoot. "I told the truth, but the truth got me nowhere," she said in an interview. Three months pregnant, already a mother of four, she spent five weeks in the Covington County Jail.

"It was hell," said Ms. Barfoot, now jobless and struggling. Police affidavits make it clear that local doctors are cooperating in these investigations.

The women are sent off to county jails, state prisons, or drug rehabilitation clinics, and often emerge bitter at the collaboration of police, prosecutors, judges, doctors and social workers they say is less keen on help -- Mr. Gambril insists otherwise -- than punishment.

"In Covington County, I don't think they're interested in helping mothers," Ms. Hitson said. "They're just sending people straight to prison. It doesn't help their drug problems."

A few of the local defense lawyers express similar sentiments: "None of those cases should have been brought," said Rod Sylvester, who represents another woman charged with chemical endangerment. "It's an overreaching."

But others bring up the powerful, unspoken community sanction against the combination of drugs and pregnant women. And so far, none of the women have risked trial.

"Our ultimate goal is to protect mothers and children," Mr. Gambril said.

Meanwhile, Shirley Hinson, Ms. Hitson's grandmother, is still furious over Tiffany's year of imprisonment. "They took something away from my granddaughter and my grandbaby they can't give back," she said. "They made an example out of Tiffany. That's all they did."

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